February 4, 2007
The most troubling thing about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's takeover of absolute powers last week is not that he has become a narcissist-Leninist elected dictator, but that his example is taking hold in a growing number of Latin American countries.
Just two decades after democracy took hold in the region, we're seeing a rapidly growing trend to expand presidential powers in countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Colombia and Argentina. Some of them are also creating ''people's organizations'' to intimidate and silence opponents, much like Benito Mussolini did in Italy or Fidel Castro in Cuba.
Consider the most recent developments:
• In Venezuela, the entirely pro-Chávez National Assembly on Jan. 31 passed a law that gives the president special powers to rule by decree for 18 months. Under the new rule, Chávez will be able to sign sweeping economic and political laws, including one allowing for his indefinite reelection.
''The president has received imperial powers,'' Teodoro Petkoff, an ex-Marxist guerrilla and former planning minister who now runs the daily Tal Cual, told me in a telephone interview from Caracas. ``Chávez already controlled all powers, but the legislative procedures were cumbersome and bothered him. Now, he can rule without legislative delays.''
What's more, Article 2 of the new law allows Chávez to create government-backed people's organizations ``to allow the direct exercise of the people's sovereignty.''
• In Ecuador, new President Rafael Correa is following Chávez's steps in calling for a Constitutional Assembly to replace the opposition-controlled Congress. On Thursday, thousands of government-backed activists, armed with clubs and rocks, stormed into the Congress demanding that lawmakers accept Correa's plan to hold a March 18 referendum to rewrite the constitution and expand presidential powers.
• In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has held a referendum to convene a Constituent Assembly that would give him broad powers, although his plan is deadlocked over voting rules and autonomy demands by opposition governors. On Jan. 11, about 10,000 Morales-backed coca-growers marched onto the opposition-run city of Cochabamba in an effort to force the resignation of government Manfred Reyes Villa.
In an interview in Miami last week, Reyes Villa told me that the president is using ''citizen militias'' to oust recently elected opposition governors.
• In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega was given special powers by Congress on Jan. 21 to sign decrees over a wide range of issues, and to create ''people's councils'' that oppositionists fear will be replicas of the Sandinista Defense Committees that spied on government opponents in the 1980s.
Last week, Nicaragua's Civil Alliance, an umbrella group for 300 nongovernment organizations, issued a statement expressing its concerns over the ''growing concentration of power'' in Ortega's hands.
• In Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe got extraordinary powers from Congress in 2001 to expand his military powers in 2002 to negotiate with paramilitary groups, and in 2004 to sign decrees with the rank of laws to rule on administrative matters. Critics say Uribe is the strongest president Colombia has had in recent history.
• In Argentina, President Néstor Kirchner's government got ''superpowers'' from Congress in August 2006 to allow the chief of staff to reassign funds from the national budget without asking for specific permission from Congress. Critics say this will give the Kirchner government a blank check to use funds in this year's presidential elections.
My opinion: Granted, there are differences among these countries. While Bolivia is a Venezuelan satellite, several others are not. And Latin America is not alone in this power-grabbing trend: While there is an opposition Congress in Washington, President Bush's habit of using bill-signing statements to interpret legislation in his own way goes way beyond his job description.
But Chávez's gradual transformation into a tropical emperor has had a dangerous anesthetic effect in Latin America. People in the region are getting used to it, as if being elected would give Chávez the right to rule without accountability.
If Latin Americans react with indifference to the erosion of checks and balances in a neighboring country, they may soon react the same way at home.
There are good reasons to worry that more countries will soon follow Venezuela's steps, and switch from hybrid democracies to elected dictatorships.